As a junior in college, Mike Strautmanis would look up at the glittering buildings in downtown Chicago and dream of being a lawyer in one of those skyscrapers. Taking a summer job that year as a bike messenger brought him in tantalizing proximity to that goal. One day, the messenger service dispatched him to do deliveries for one of the law firms in the city.
Strautmanis, now Chief Engagement Officer at The Obama Foundation, recalls the gravity of that moment. “There wasn’t anyone in my family who was a lawyer or had that type of professional services profession. So when I ended up delivering packages at Sidley, it gave me a window into that world.”
He quickly uncovered the name of the head of human resources in Sidley’s Chicago office. “I called her, literally once a month, for 13 months, because she never told me ‘no.’ It was a mistake on her part,” he says, laughing.
Perhaps 13 really is a lucky number. It was the summer before Strautmanis started law school that he got his big break. “I called her one last time and she gave me a job. One of the things I’ve always thought was so special about Sidley is that it gave me that chance.”
The firm brought Strautmanis on in the summer of 1991 as a paralegal and project assistant in general litigation. He was then invited back the following year, as a first-year summer associate. During his time with Sidley, a number of mentors drew him into the fold, including associate Linzey Jones, now a judge for the Illinois Cook Circuit Court. “It was Linzey, a lawyer who graduated from the University of Illinois, where I went to school, who really helped open up a path for me and made me realize I belonged.”
Another mentor and friend was Michelle Obama, née Robinson. Strautmanis remembers vividly the day she invited him into her office. “I had just been accepted to law school and just really wanted to know what lawyers did. She was working on an intellectual property matter that involved reviewing frames from a TV commercial for legal flags. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. It was Michelle’s willingness to take that time to invest in a young person, even before we really knew each other. It had a huge impact on me.”
Strautmanis’ friendship with Michelle, and later, with her husband, Barack Obama, ultimately led him to civic engagement. “The relationship I’d developed with the Obamas, first as mentors and then later as friends, embodied a shared sense of the importance of public service. They awakened in me an idealism that I now bring with me in everything I do. It informed what we could do as lawyers and through the law, and, frankly, through the democracy as reformers.”
After Sidley, Strautmanis moved briefly to another law firm but ultimately headed to Washington for a national policy job with former President Bill Clinton’s administration, as Chief of Staff to the General Counsel at the United States Agency for International Development. Strautmanis then served as Chief Counsel in then-Senator Obama’s U.S. Senate office and the Director of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs on then-President-elect Obama’s presidential transition team. He later served in the Obama Administration as Chief of Staff to Valerie Jarrett, Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement.
Flash forward to 2016, when Strautmanis assumed his role with The Obama Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to inspire, empower, and connect people to make positive change in their communities. He is tasked with developing and leading outreach and community engagement efforts for the Foundation alongside its other programming, including: a community leadership training program; a program in partnership with University of Chicago for Scholars from around the world; the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance; and a year-long initiative that promises to “connect 200 emerging leaders from across Africa to take on the biggest challenges in their communities, countries, and continent.”
Strautmanis is also deeply involved in the planning for The Obama Presidential Center, which is slated to open in 2022 on the South Side of Chicago. He is frequently out in the community, visiting the homes of neighbors who live near the site, discussing how the project may impact them and getting ideas about what they’d like to see in terms of its amenities and programs for the community.
He says the Center, which will include a museum dedicated to the historic Obama presidency, a Chicago Public Library branch, an activity and athletic center, and beautified parkland and public gathering spaces on 19.3 acres of parkland, will be more imaginative than staid. “Rather than a kind of traditional, quiet, secluded presidential library, what’s coming is a real cultural attraction that will be a public amenity, a really vibrant museum that will extend the tradition of museums we have in Chicago along the lake.” Strautmanis believes it will come to be a haven for young people—a place they can go to learn and express themselves, or to do homework in an outdoor space.
“To get up every day and to be a part of giving people the opportunity to participate in what I think is one of the most important projects of my lifetime—it’s a privilege,” Strautmanis says. “I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they realize that this is real, and they’re participating in the creation of The Obama Presidential Center. It’s not lost on them and it’s not lost on me,” he says.
Published September 2018
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